Our top 40 records of the year, voted for by our contributors
While we appreciate that we’re still a whole month away from the end of 2023, our final issue of the year being published tomorrow (25 November) has forced us into compiling our Albums of the Year list and sharing it right now. We have, however, listened to albums that we know will be released this December and included them in our fiery debates about who’s made our top 40 records of 2023. If someone suddenly drops one out of the sky that is a real list-botherer (it can happen, as SZA proved last year) we will make it clear just how wrong we’ve been. For now though, as voted for by the contributors of Loud And Quiet, our fine top 40 looks like this. Hope you find something new, and rediscover records you perhaps fleetingly glanced at earlier this year.
The duo of Lira Mondal and Caufield Schnug came up in the Boston underground in something like a thousand DIY bands that ticked off every indie guitar style imaginable. Since they moved to Kansas though – where they recorded this second Sweeping Promises album in “a nude painting studio” – they’ve been mastering scuzzy ’80s no-wave pop that’s overflowing with huge hooks. Like Blondie and The B52s scrapping in… “a nude painting studio.”
Nourished by Time is the DIY disco project of Baltimore-raised Marcus Brown. His debut album, Erotic Probiotic 2, is a hazy collection of dance boppers, combining R&B, funk and ’80s drum machines that bring to mind John Maus as much as anything from that decade.
Taja Cheek’s third album as L’Rain dispels the myth that “experimental” music needs to be inaccessible to warrant its tag. Her aim to produce guitar-based music that is as listenable as it is inventive is fully realised on I Killed Your Dog – a record as intriguing and occasionally bratty as its title suggests.
The first ambient musician on our list this year, Georgian producer Beqa Ungiandze has made an album no one else could conceivably claim they could have come up with. სადგური [Station] is not an album of Spotify playlist ambience that sounds not far removed from Ableton default settings, but a record that feels practically orchestral (and touchable) in places. Even the reverb feels like a solid object.
The easy comparison to reach for with Maple Glider is Julia Jacklin – a fellow indie-folk musician from Melbourne who, like Tori Zietsch, has not just a supernatural way with melody but a borderline operatic voice that makes so many others feels subpar in that department. I Get Into Trouble is Zietsch’s second album, and the way it marries classic songwriting with themes of love, consent and abuse, is as stealthy as it is undeniable.
After the relative polish of 2021’s Spare Ribs, the Nottingham duo dived back down into an extra sparse, nasty-sounding palette of beats and barks for UK Grim. How couldn’t they when things have continued to go from worse to worst under our current government? UK Grim indeed.
Simplicity is the absolute key on Charlotte Cornfield’s fifth album of alt-folk. At not even 30 minutes long, the Toronto artist gets straight to demonstrating how effective it is to be unapologetically direct on the plaintive piano ballad ‘Gentle Like A Drug’, where her lyrics sound as if they’re coming into her head half a second before we hear them. There are no mixed messages here at all, and Could Have Done Anything is Cornfield’s best album because of it.
Following a couple of albums underpinned by synthesisers, Mitski returned to the acoustic guitar for her seventh. The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We has more in common with 2014’s Bury Me At Makeout Creek in that regard, with moments that blow out into full orchestration. It’s all about the vocal though, isn’t it? There’s a reason Mitski has refused all interviews this year – she neither likes nor needs them.
You can’t really say that Erin Birgy’s latest album as Mega Bog is a happy one. End Of Everything was written in California during the pandemic as the state was ablaze with wildfires. But despite the messages within the record, the overall feel of Birgy’s fifth album is much more upbeat, as she replaces jazz-prog guitars with coldwave synths, and visits the sounds of Future Islands, Italo Disco and Tango In The Night era Fleetwood Mac as she tells us all that we’re fucked.
The presumption (if any can exist in the world of ANOHNI) was that ANOHNI had binned off the band permanently, and that when a new record did come it’d be in more in the vein of her last, Hudson Mohawke- and Oneohtrix Point Never-produced solo album, Hopelessness. Instead, the message has remained (grieving for a planet we continue to destroy), but the delivery is a straight-up soul record. ANOHNI’s most accessible album yet.
LA hardcore band Zulu have a good chance of realising their goal of being considered a modern day Bad Brains. Debut album A New Tomorrow isn’t all about trashing speed though (although it does have that too) – it provides a new approach to powerviolence, sampling Curtis Mayfield and reggae as it makes no bones about what it is to be a Black punk band in American today.
The real name of Craven Faults is still unknown, and it’s probably best not to ask. Electronic music as widescreen as that which is found on Standers is where this type of record begins and ends. Who made it, and why, is not really of any concern – this is an album of vast electronica like that of Cluster, with a sense of wide open spaces and endless skies rather than a trip to the moon.
Mysterious London trio Bar Italia released two albums via their new deal with Matador this year. The most recent is The Twits, but it was May’s Tracy Denim that got its claws in us, from its wonky nods to Britpop to its wonkier nods to the Velvet Underground. Whichever member is singing (and they all have a go) they sound completely bored by the exercise. Which is exactly how more bands should behave.
When London slowcore band Deathcrash went to the Outer Hebrides to record their second album Less, the plan was to make a pop album followup to their debut Return. It was only when they listened back to it that they realised what a dark and heavy record they had on their hands – even slower than before; more sparse; but also even more of a gut punch. The band’s own Closer, if you will. And that can’t be a bad thing.
‘Reflections Vol. 1’ here refers to a new series from RVNG Intl., where the New York ambient label will spontaneously pair contemporary musicians to make a record together. It couldn’t have gotten off to a better start than with this unhurried instrumental record by guitarist Steve Gunn (here playing classical nylon strings) and minimalist ensemble Ruth & Bing band leader David Moore, who’s supplies extremely spacious piano throughout. Delicate, modest and… well… reflective.
At the heart of Systemic is a fight for Indigenous and Black liberation, which the Australia-based metal duo somehow manage to powerfully convey without speaking a word. Once again consisting of world-ending, sustained guitar riffs, cymbal smashing breakbeats and the occasional use of saxophone, the two piece also add more electronics than before on the bookending tracks (looping, hopeful and lovelier than the sandwich filling of straight-up doom), which suggests how their next album will sound even more unique.
Olivia Rodrigo aside, 2023 hasn’t really been a year of FUN pop that’s also any good. Apart from Hannah Diamond’s Perfect Picture. Inspired by euro pop and trance, it’s an unapologetically cute, saccharine record of big hair-brush choruses. The perfect record to wrap up the PC Music label after 10 years of DIY ambition and lasting chart legacy.
The fact that What’s Bad Enough? hasn’t made punk stars out of Scottish duo Comfort can only come down to the fact that not enough people have heard it yet. It just doesn’t make sense that a record this full of rage yet inventively rhythmic hasn’t blown up in 2023. The sibling duo of Natalie and Sean McGhee deliver their message of classism, disillusionment and Natalie’s experience as a trans woman with LCD-like punk-funk drums, a sour set of electronics, and Natalie’s barbed, yelped vocals that sounds like they belong in New York’s late ’70s Mudd Club.
Hand’s down the biggest indie record of the year, and how couldn’t it be. The three queens of confessional indie (Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker) simply took what they all did so expertly already and did it together. It’s just maths – three expert songwriters are better than one, especially when they love each other as much as the members of Boygenius do, ensuring that they were all given their own space on their debut album together.
The debut album from Manchester-based band Mandy, Indiana is a record we couldn’t leave alone this year, always convinced that there was something else hidden in it. And usually there was. A mixture of electronics, industrial, noise and post-punk, its vocals sung in French only served to disorientate further, while the hissing pistons, clapping drum machine and walls of static continue to drag us back in to the thrill of it all.
LA duo Paris Texas would do well on a tour with Denzel Curry, JPEGMAFIA or Show Me The Body – a hip hop duo for hardcore punk kids to starts circle pits to. Their debut album is simply a ferocious, good-time tear-up of wild moshy tracks with the occasional respite that winds and grooves more like Migos. Then it’s back to the pit.
Squid always looked like the type of band who were going to aggressively push themselves beyond their post-punk beginnings, as thrilling as their early singles were. Debut album Bright Green Field started the bucking of the trend, while O Monolith saw the group dive down a rabbit hole and come back with a masterpiece of modern paranoia inspired as much by folk and computer music as post-punk. There are tales of rats, plane crashes and being reincarnated as beside cabinet here, for crying out loud!
There must be Reddit threads about what Everyone’s Crushed is all about, but you won’t find any concrete answers there. Nor should you – the appeal of a duo as post-ironic as weed-lovers Water From Your Eyes is in trying to get in on the joke while knowing that you never will. It’s the best way to approach this bonkers art-pop record, made up of bizarre samples and sirens, shifting time signatures, half ideas and sudden moments of clear sincerity and social commentary on post-pandemic dread.
Julie Byrne finished her third album after the death of her producer, friend and longtime collaborator Eric Littmann. It was probably going to be a beautiful record of delicate indie folk anyway, but the profound grief that went into its completion made it one of the year’s most poignant albums.
By far the most aggressive record on our list this year, the debut album from Kingsley Hall, Robbie Major and Hugh Major is a furious collection of noise/hardcore tracks that make Sleaford Mods sound like The Moldy Peaches. At times Hall, so frustrated and furious at the state of the UK right now, swallows the microphone as he screams into all that distortion; at others, he makes his point in the form of an animated speech that suggests he could write and perform effective political theatre if he chose to. In a society where nothing we do or say has any affect on the way our government behaves, Nails is a perfect embodiment of our despair and anger, and the natural end point of artistic expression about current day Britain.
Drummer Yussef Dayes named his debut album Black Classical Music not as a full rejection of jazz, but to clearly note a.) how much more than jazz his record is, and b.) that jazz itself should be considered as timeless as classical music is. Pulling in elements of ’70s funk, reggae and afrobeat, his point is made beautifully over 19 tracks from one of our most well respected collaborators.
Newcastle kings of doom metal Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs had such a lovely, easy time recording their fourth album they were worried that it was going to come out sounding too light and fluffy. Land Of Sleepers ended up being their most headphones record, precisely due to how bleak and heavy it feels, while losing none of the famous Pigs theatrics, inspired by vintage Black Sabbath.
You’d be hard pushed to find a rawer album this year than Joanna Sternberg’s second. I’ve Got Me is the New Yorker’s diaries set to the gentle brush of an acoustic guitar, a vaudevillian piano and occasional drums – all played by Sternberg, all with a sense of off-Broadway theatre about them. The songs here sound completely timeless, like Carol King’s or Randy Newman’s, as Sternberg’s vocals offer a unique, unaffected voice to a world of American singer-songwriters where it’s becoming more difficult to decipher who’s who.
We went back and forth on which we loved more this year – Billy Woods’ album with producer Kenny Segal or his record with Elucid (We Buy Diabetic Test Strips) as Armand Hammer. Check out/revisit both, but we ended on Maps, on account of how much Woods uncharacteristically reveals about himself within it. Underground rap’s most mysterious artist is facing up to the success he’s now having, and how he feels about that is documented in these typically louche tracks, as Woods parks the riddles in favour of bars about isolation on tour. A fascinating chapter in his anti-fame story.
It’s not a very nice name, but Pittsburgh’s Feeble Little Horse expected nothing from their band. “I think we’re from a generation that doesn’t follow their dreams,” they told us this year, around the release of Girl With Fish, an album that collides shoegaze and noise-pop with hook-heavy indie. It’s as if by having such low ambitions Feeble Little Horse have freed themselves to come up with their own sound, that hits an often missed sweet spot between melody and experimentalism within the common band setup.
Tirzah‘s release of her third album felt like an unexpected surprise, and like it had come extremely close to her previous album, Colourgrade. But it really hadn’t. It was simply down to the unshowy way she goes about things – when she’s not releasing an album, she’s invisible, wholly unconcerned about keeping her ‘brand’ current. Trip9love…??? is a record fitting of such an approach to being a modern day artist: produced by collaborator Mica Levi, it’s a record built around a single piano and skittering drum loop, and is a triumph of simplicity as Tirzah’s unique vocal constantly shifts the songs in new directions. Her snappiest album yet.
What’s so special about John Francis Flynn‘s new collection of eight traditional folk songs reimagined, is how welcoming it is. Look Over The Wall, See The Sky is lightyears away from the hey-nonny-nonny cliché of trad folk and instead brings in elements of electronic drone, post-rock and scratchy post-punk, while Flynn can either mumble with the best of them (‘Mole in the Ground’) or purr unaccompanied like a great of the trad scene he grew up in (‘The Zoological Gardens)’.
Musically speaking, experimentalist Yves Tumor is getting “less weird”, but judging from Praise A Lord… it’s no bad thing. It could well be because their fifth album retains plenty of segues and passages that commercial rock music would never think about including, but it’s more likely because this is the album Yves Tumor was always aiming for – a big-sounding glam rock record; Prince via the fuzz funk of TV On The Radio. The intro of ‘Meteora Blues’ meanwhile recalls The Replacements before it drops into another big, grungy chorus; each track more suited to classic status than the next. Yves’ best record yet.
Six albums in, Protomartyr have become the most consistent post-punk band of the last 10 years. Formal Growth In The Desert is another record of dead-eyed Detroit huff that swings one moment (‘Make Way’), scutters the next (‘Fun In Hi Skool’) and rants and charges the next (‘For Tomorrow’). This album was born out of singer Joe Casey grieving the death of his mother, and if you listen closely you can hear the influence guitarist Greg Ahee’s film score work has had on the band’s sound. But really, it’s just just another deep black masterpiece from a band who can make a melody from a dire situation.
Rosie Carr is not only an ambient musician but a gardener too, and her debut album combines both loves. Yew is a fascinating collection of soundscapes designed to echo Carr’s garden, by looping samples of medieval cassettes and combining them with distorted field recordings, homemade instruments and improvised responses on harp and violin. Combined, it makes for a beautifully euphoric listen.
Young Fathers‘ fourth album is a celebration of music as a communal experience, as if the trio themselves have given up waiting for magazines, radio stations and TV shows to figure out where to place them. All of the track on Heavy Heavy dare you to worry about anything as trivial as genre, as the band stick to their 3.5-minute pop song structure but let the tracks build around repeated hooks designed to be sung on mass or by a choir (as they often are here). Rhythms come from all over world on these songs of neo-soul, electropop, R&B and Naija pop, but what ties them all together is the pure joy of it all.
The first collaboration between Guatemalan-born cellist and composer Mabe Fratti and Venezuelan guitarist Hector Tosta, Vidrio is a lurching record of modern composition that confirms Fratti as the queen of Mexico City’s underground (where she’s currently based), and marks Tosta as her perfect foil. Fratti’s Spanish-language vocals drift atop the jazz instrumentations that appear to mimic her mood, desperate to be part of her record. You can see why.
What makes Anna B Savage such an appealing artist is her brutal honesty, and that she can have a laugh just as easily a monumental cry. She was clear that her 2021 debut album was born out of “wanking more”, just as she’s been straight about in|FLUX being a record of self acceptance and kindness. With the help of producer Mike Lindsay, it’s the richest she’s sounded yet, on an album that reminds us to look after ourselves, especially as relationships collapse.
Scaring The Hoes is to underground hip hop what Watch The Throne was to the mainstream. Everything about it makes sense, from the pairing of two giants of the mosh pit, to how screwball and blown out JPEGMAFIA‘s beats are, which ricochet all over the place. Did they clear that Kelis sample? Possibly? It’s partly what made it the most fun, seat-of-your-pants rap record of 2023.
Although they’ve been around in one form or another for 20 years now, Dublin’s Lankum have been developing their own version of traditional folk music in its current form since their 2017 album, Between The Earth And Sky, when they started to push ancient songs into new places by accentuating the droning elements of the music by adding heavy sounds more synonymous with metal and hardcore. In our end of year cover feature with the group, singer Radie Peat noted how their following album, 2019’s The Livelong Day, perhaps took things too far, making it too bleak for her to listen to. False Lankum has been a recalibration, and the band have rightfully been rewarded for hitting a sweet spot between noise and dread and space and peace. It’s a record that is worlds deep, and if 2023 has had anything going for it, it’s the fact that an album so dense and uncompromising has provided a band like this with their breakout year after two decades of musical exploration. False Lankum looked like being our album of the year as soon as it was released, and it is.